Two Old Men and the Old Way

Two Old Men and the Old Way

This is a story of two old friends that still manage to do things the “old fashioned way” and have some success. It is appropriate that this story takes place on Veterans Day. My best friend Paul is a veteran of the Vietnam War, a great person, hunter, and the best shot I ever saw. I could elaborate on all of those things, but I choose to focus on a couple of them.

 

One of the many terrible effects of his service in Vietnam was the loss of sight in his left eye. That is worse for him than most because Paul is left handed, and that means that his left eye is his master eye, which is of supreme importance as a shooter. Hence, he had to learn to shoot right-handed, and with that, he is still one of the best two shooters I know.

 

Paul and I met on a rainy Saturday morning in mid-October 1961, while we were pheasant hunting at the farm across the street from my house. After a brief introduction, I invited him to hop into my 1949 Dodge semi-automatic transmission to hunt another spot. We spent countless days together hunting and fishing over the next 56 years. As many as we have shared, it still isn’t enough to satisfy me.

 

1949 Dodge Semi-Automatic

1949 Dodge Semi-Automatic

The next December I was with Paul when he missed a big buck, but later on a snow-covered mountain in New Hampshire with temperatures about -15 F, he would get his first deer.

17 Year-Old Paul (and 18 Year-Old Steve) with Paul's First Deer

17 Year-Old Paul (and 18 Year-Old Steve) with Paul’s First Deer

The next November, I was with him on that same mountain when he got his first buck.

 

That same day I missed the first deer I ever shot at. We agree that our first misses were “buck fever.” In our excitement, we had put the front sight on the deer but never lined up the rear sight. That means that every missed shot, his seven shots at that one deer and my three shots at my deer, went harmlessly over the deer’s back. That would never happen again to either of us.

 

To show you what kind of person he is, there was another day of deer hunting that shows his heart. It was the last day of the 1963 six-day deer season in Massachusetts, and we were hunting on the east side of the Berkshire Mountains.

 

I tracked and shot my first my first deer, a four-point buck. Seconds after I fired, I heard a shot and knew that it would not be good. Fifty yards away, two men were standing over my buck, and they were not going to let me have it even though I showed them where I had hit it. I was chagrined to say the least. I swore that I would never again hunt in a place where that was a possibility.

 

At about the same time, Paul shot a deer that had obviously been wounded earlier in the lower leg. It certainly could have survived such a wound, but Paul put it down on the spot with a perfect shot. Several minutes later, two men showed up and told Paul that they were the ones that had shot it earlier. They made a less than good shot, but Paul gave them kudos for sticking with it to try to make the best for all concerned, including the deer. He saw the disappointment in their eyes, and he could tell that this deer meant real food to them. Without hesitation, Paul told them to tag it and take it home. A tale of contrasting humans if I ever saw it in a single day.

 

There is a dying method of hunting that Paul and I have employed all of our lives. The technical term is “still hunting,” which is, in my mind, a misnomer because you are not standing still, you are moving. Sometimes you move very slowly, and at times, you might actually run. I prefer to call this type of hunting “tracking.” It is all about reading sign, like track, droppings, rubs, and the like. I readily admit that today’s method of hunting, which came about with the invention of portable tree stands, is far more successful than tracking. That said, there is nowhere near the satisfaction that there is when you hunt like my Native American great-great-grandmother Euphemia from New Brunswick and her husband, Andrew Smith from NH, did in the Canadian Maritime Provinces and Maine about 180 years ago. My father always said that I got all of my genes from those two.

 

The season before last, at the ripe old age of 69, Paul found himself in the northern reaches of NH, literally a stone’s throw from Canada. In 1960s, he was given the nickname “Tote Road’ because of his success still hunting the old logging roads. Well here he was “pussy footing” down another tote road more than 55 years later. Again success. Paul shot the biggest deer of his life, a 217-pound monster. It was the seventh largest muzzleloader buck shot in the state that year.

 

Paul with His 217-Pound Buck in 2015

Paul with His 217-Pound Buck in 2015

All this brings me to this past Thursday, the second day of deer season. I had put in countless hours scouting over the previous four months, and I had success finding a bachelor group of bucks. That’s a group of bucks that hangs together until the rut kicks in, at which time all bets are off, and these former friends become mortal enemies. I even got trail camera videos of smaller bucks rubbing larger bucks with their antlers–a sign of submission.


When the group broke up, it was increasingly difficult to keep track of them as they sought out new territories. I set out to find at least one to justify my many hours in the woods. That morning, I went to an old haunt high up on the mountain where, in years past, the bucks would hang out free of human interference. It was a long hike for these almost 73 year-old legs, but I knew I could do it. 

I made my way to a spot where a gully runs downhill to the south, and a sharp, rock-strewn ridge runs east to west. I sat down on one of those kitchen table-sized granite boulders, as much to rest as to observe. I checked my GPS and it indicated it was 7:04 AM. My lucky number. I saw that as a sign to stay on the rock longer than I had planned, and after a little bit less than an hour, I heard, thanks to my new hearing aids, a slight sound to my right.

 

I saw the back of a good-sized deer heading down the mountain. My first thought was that it was a buck, simply because of its size. When it got below me, it was obvious that it was a very large (and no doubt old) doe. She was making tracks. She definitely had some place that she wanted to be, and she was getting there at a pace just short of a trot. Then it dawned on me that she was probably in estrus, and a buck might be in hot pursuit. I was right.

 

A minute behind her was a smaller deer. At first, I thought that it might be her skipper from this spring, but as it got to an opening in the sunlight, I saw a tiny antler. It was obvious that she was a big doe, and it was just as obvious that he was a small buck.

 

Then they were gone. I gave a little prayer of gratitude to the God of hunting and waited for the adrenaline rush to subside. After about 10 minutes, I decided to resume my tracking. I went to check out the area below me to read the sign and evaluate the level of activity. Once down there, I heard a slight sound above me. I turned and looked up to see a head and antlers coming at me at about the same pace that the other two were doing.

 

I had only a second to take my rifle off of my shoulder. As I did, the buck cut to my right, just a few feet below the rock that I had been sitting on. He stopped behind a large hardwood tree, I think because he detected my movement. He had his head just out to the right of the tree.

 

I was not going to take a neck shot because neck shots are too risky so I waited for his next move, and when he did, I pulled the trigger. It was a shot that Paul would be proud of–right through the heart. For the second time in minutes, I thanked the God of hunting with blessing me once more with a gift from the heavens.

 

A Gift from the God of Hunting

A Gift from the God of Hunting

There’s an old hunter saying that “When they are down, the work begins.” It is very true. With the help of my son, Tony and my brother-in-law Dana, it took longer to field dress the deer than it did to get it down the mountain. Tony wisely dragged up my ice-fishing sled, and we used it to drag (more like “sled”) the deer down the steep slopes. That sled made the haul so much easier as the oak leaves were slick and the acorns were like ball bearings.

Dana Loving the Easy Dragging

Dana Loving the Easy Dragging

 My first phone call was to Paul. He had actually called me on a whim, just as I got in the house.

 

He said, “Congratulations. We may be old, but we can still get it done.”

 

Thank God.

The Long Spike

The Long Spike

 

WLAGS

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Why I Scout

You might remember this photo from a couple of years ago.
Kevin's Buck

Kevin’s Buck

You might also remember that Kevin had to chase off a bear that was trying to have this buck for breakfast.
Well, Kevin owns most of the land (350 acres) that I was on this morning. It abuts my friend Dave’s farm.
A few days before Kevin shot this buck, he very graciously gave me permission to hunt his land.
His family has been here for several generations, and they are our version of the Benoits. All of them, brothers and nephews, shoot bucks like that every year. One already has a deer on Morse’s list.
So I started out this morning with a big surprise. Kevin, who is a logger, had cut parts of the area that I usually hunt. That’s good for the deer, but it throws off my location recognition because everything looks so different. So this time my GPS really came in handy.
The good news is that despite the significant changes to their home range, the deer are still using the same trails almost exclusively. I saw more track–fresh track–and more droppings than I have seen in the last two months.
The higher I got on the hill, the more acorns and the more deer sign I saw. This place is one of those places that has me scratching my head at times. There are many young beech trees and very few mature trees. What few big beeches were there were either already stripped of there nuts or they did not produce well. I’m betting that it is the former. So the deer here are into the acorns and supplementing that with greens.
My remaining questions now are about bucks. Hopefully I’ll get some cameras there and start answering those questions.
It took five hours of beating the bush to learn almost everything in these few paragraphs. Hopefully it will all be worth the effort.
WLAGS
Bucks and Beechnuts

Bucks and Beechnuts

Thankfully, there have been a few memorable and rewarding scouting expeditions in my life, and these few hours this morning will be added to that list.

I decided to go to a place I haven’t been to in years because, while looking through my notes for beechnut groves, I came across Gigi’s.

It’s named after the owner of the property that graciously gave us permission to hunt there many, probably 15 or more, years ago.

I remembered that there was a large beechnut grove almost surrounding her property. So I was optimistic that what I have seen near here might translate into a good crop there. I was not expecting to find what I did. As the photo inadequately shows, there are trees loaded with beechnuts. The likes of which I have NEVER seen in 55 years of hunting in the North Country.

Bountiful Beechnuts

Bountiful Beechnuts

As you look at the picture of the field, both tree lines, but especially the left side, are mostly beeches.

Gigi's Field

Gigi’s Field

They are literally hanging branches full of nuts right over the field.

Low-Hanging Fruit

Low-Hanging Fruit

What a once-in-a-lifetime chance to bowhunt beeches. Most of the time, when trying to hunt a mast crop, especially beeches, the food is spread out over a large, fairly open area, and the deer will move from one spot to another as they consume all of the nuts under certain trees. Thus, where they are today, is not necessarily where they will be tomorrow, at least as far as bow range is concerned.

The ground under those low-hanging branches was covered in turkey sign, including several dusting bowls. It’s interesting that unlike here, the trees are not yet dropping their nuts. I can only speculate in that this might be elevation related. I checked the pods and every one was full with a large healthy nut.

The field has ample grasses and even red clover. To top things off there is the apple tree at the far end that I have never seen that many apples in.

Gigi's Apple Tree

Gigi’s Apple Tree

As I headed to the truck, I was very pleased with what I saw and with myself for making those notes way back when.

At the truck, after having a snack, I thought that I should drive very slowly going out because of another big find.

As I drove in on the tote road this morning, I was surprised to see almost the whole mile of road on the left side had been logged, right up to Gigi’s property line. This of course makes her property even more important, as it now offers cover along with food. The only thing that I did wrong at this point was not to have my camera ready.

I had not gone very far, still this side of the big brook, when I saw the rump of a deer up in the cutover, 25 yards off the road. I knew that it was a buck just by its size, and I was even more convinced of that when I noticed another slightly smaller rump to its right.

My first thought was that it was a buck and a doe. Wrong! As they lifted their heads to look at me, it was two bucks.

The first was at least a long-tined six-pointer and maybe an eight, but I could not see well enough to make out brow points. The other buck was at least a four—a six if he had brow points. They were both completely in velvet still. Then a doe appeared, and the three of them bounded up the cutover. They stopped and turned broadside to me as I scrambled for the camera, which was in my backpack in the back seat…of course!

All in all, a very rewarding few hours that might result in some success later in the year.

WLAGS

A Plan and a Whim

A Plan and a Whim

On our last day, we made plans to fish a small and somewhat difficult pond to reach. On the drive there, we had the pleasure of seeing a cow moose kneel down right beside our truck to drink while her calf (a young bull with knobs on his head) whimpered like a dog. He was more concerned about our presence than she was.

Cow Moose Drinking with Baby Bull

Cow Moose Drinking with Baby Bull

That was quite a sight, and it was a great way to start our morning. Now on to that remote pond. It would require carrying the boat and all the equipment over a fairly steep, rock-strewn and root-covered trail.

Heavy Lifting

Heavy Lifting

As usual, Tony did most of the heavy lifting as we dragged his 15-foot canoe and all the necessary equipment to the pond. And thanks to the cold, wet spring we had, the black flies were mixed in with the mosquitoes, even though it was Father’s Day weekend, not Mother’s Day weekend when you’d normally see black flies.

We made our way to the brush-choked shore. It was worth it almost for the view. It’s a gorgeous little pond, even by Maine standards. We were anxious to get started.

Can't Beat the View

Can’t Beat the View

The weatherman had promised an overcast day and maybe even a little drizzle. No such luck! As soon as we launched, the sun broke out of what turned out to be a cloudless sky, and the temperature shot up; not exactly the prime conditions we were hoping for.

We did as well as could be expected, catching my first creek chub, and a few small brookies–both stocked and native.

My First Creek Chub

My First Creek Chub

We lunched on the porch of the only camp on the lake.

A Rustic Camp

A Rustic Camp

It was a throwback in time in its structure and what passed for furniture and equipment. The only access is by boat or across the ice. It looked like it had not been used in several years, but one can only imagine the many wonderful days and nights spent there by so many hopeful hunters and fishermen.

A Hopeful Fisherman

A Hopeful Fisherman

Of note was the cardboard cutout, which was often done back then so you could eat your catch, of a 17-inch brookie with the date and name of the lucky fisherman and the fly. After lunch, we left our respite and headed across the pond to our truck to make ready for an evening of fishing.

After a hearty supper, we started to head for one of the more famous rivers when I once again got a whim. I turned to Tony, as we passed a stretch of a river that looked great and suggested that we drop the canoe in there.

It is one of those places that is very difficult to wade, and it is almost impossible to cover all of the good water with a fly rod.

So we dragged the canoe down yet another steep, rocky bank, and we launched. This worked out great. The darker it got, the more fish rose, and we had a great night of dry fly fishing.

Landlocked Salmon

Landlocked Salmon

We landed five salmon and one brook trout, and one rainbow trout, along with the odd fallfish and smallmouth bass.

Rainbow Trout

Rainbow Trout

Again a whim paid off!

WLAGS

Better than a Well-Laid Plan

Better than a Well-Laid Plan

Sometimes a whim is better than a well-laid plan. We had planned to fish the Magalloway River, but we were skeptical about the number of fishermen, having seen so many on the Androscoggin yesterday. We figured that river would be crazy with fishermen this morning, but the weather was just bad enough that maybe some would not venture out so early.

But we decided to stop at the dam anyway. We were encouraged when we didn’t see any cars parked there, but as it turns out a couple of guys walked there. One of them had the premier spot, but we decided to give it a shot at a couple of the lesser places to cast from.

I got there a little before Tony, and I took a lower position and motioned Tony to one of the outlets as he approached.

On his first cast I could see that he was into a fish–a little smallmouth. That was quickly followed by a nice perch.

Yellow Perch

Yellow Perch

A few minutes later, as the rain picked up in intensity, I watched as his rod doubled over and then started throbbing almost violently.

I was sure at that point that it was brook trout, and by the bend in his six-weight rod, I knew that it was a good fish. After a few minutes, Tony called down to me that it was in fact a brookie.

Then I saw its head come out of the water and saw the distance between its dorsal fin and tail, and I knew I needed to get up there. Tony always fishes with barbless hooks, and that can come back to bite you when dealing with brook trout because of their head-shaking tactic.

Even the other fishermen knew that this was something special because they stopped fishing and even offered their assistance, which included a measuring tape.

Finally Tony managed to get it to the net. It was a gorgeous 17-1/2” brookie. Other than our Labrador trip, this fish rated the biggest on his all-time list of brook trout.

Tony's 17.5-Inch Brook Trout

Tony’s 17.5-Inch Brook Trout

With a little gentle handling and a chance to recover, the trout was back where he belonged, in the river.

Tony had taken all the fish on this trip thus far, on a fly he tied himself several years ago, a small, dark streamer.

So I headed back down to my spot and immediately tied on the same fly. A nice brown trout found it to his liking on my first cast.

The rain was coming down even harder now. It was the kind of day that if you were inside, you probably would not go out, but once you were out, what the heck; what’s getting a little more wet and cold? It certainly was putting our rain gear to the test.

We caught several more fish, including a couple of nice bass, but as the rain let up, so did the fishing.

My 15-Inch Smallmouth Bass

My 15-Inch Smallmouth Bass

When the rain finally stopped, you would not have known that there was a fish in the river.

We then turned our attention to fishing with my friend Brian that evening. Brian is almost a legend in these parts. He grew up north of the Notches, and knows the woods, lakes, and rivers of this area of N.H. and Maine.

He is also a guide and specializes in moose, both for hunting and photography. He has taken photos of moose that ended up in many magazines.

Brian met us at Lake Umbagog at about 5:30 PM, and we jumped into his 21’ 250 HP boat and were ready for action.

Brian and I in His Speed Machine

Brian and I in His Speed Machine

I must admit that I never went 60 MPH on freshwater before, but that’s what we were doing in what seemed like seconds.

We covered the 10+ miles to our spot in about 10 minutes. I trip that with my 40 HP motor, would have taken me twice that if I dared to go full throttle, and I wouldn’t do that.

We got some nice photos of a mated pair of eagles.

Mated Pair of Bald Eagles

Mated Pair of Bald Eagles

Despite Brian’s intimate knowledge of the lake, the fishing was tough. We managed only a few decent  bass (all caught by Brian), a few respectable pickerel, and perch, and that was that. So even with an expert and the best equipment, sometimes the fish win.

Brian with a Smallmouth

Brian with a Smallmouth

WLAGS

 

Things That End Well

Things That End Well

Instead of being on the road for our annual Father’s Day week fishing trip, I found myself in the E.R. with a bad case of dehydration. After being treated with a bag of saline, I was discharged and told to rest for 24 hours.

Heading to the ER

Heading to the ER

Thus our trip started out a day late, and we would have to revise our plans, at least slightly. We were going to try to stick to a few goals we had set.

After arriving at our cabin at midafternoon, we made our way to a boat that we had left at the famous Pond in the River.

Our Boat at Pond in the River

Our Boat at Pond in the River

It was a beautiful day, but a bit breezier than we would have liked.

We reached our destination, the northeast end of the mile-and-half-long pond with about two hours of light left.

Like almost everything about this trip so far, things started off slowly. When I was seriously thinking about starting the long trek back, Tony suddenly hooked up. We knew instantly that it was a salmon, as it was spending almost as much time in the air as it did in the water. After a great battle, we released it.

Tony's 14-Inch Salmon

Tony’s 14-Inch Salmon

Not long after that, Tony hooked up again. Another salmon, and it too had fallen for a fly that Tony had tied himself many years ago.

The light was dimming quickly, but I told Tony to try for another minute. Sure enough, two casts later, he hooked and landed another salmon—no easy task on a single, barbless hook, which is required at Pond in the River. That was last call, as it was almost dark.

Tony's Last-Cast Salmon

Tony’s Last-Cast Salmon

We had a lightweight battery that we used because of the rugged trail we needed to negotiate. Could that battery stand up to a stiff 10- to 15-mph wind that was now blowing right down the chute at us? Well, we may have overheated that little battery, but it got us back to the truck about 45 minutes later.

Our Sunset View on the Ride Home

Our Sunset View on the Ride Home

We hoped that this start to our trip, although brief, was a sign of things to come.

More to follow.

WLAGS

Apple Blossom Time

Apple Blossom Time

As I walk through the woods, the things that amaze me most about New England are the stonewalls (which I consider a greater feat than the Great Pyramids) and the apple trees.

As I’m sure you are aware, there are no apple trees native to the Americas. All these trees came stock and seed from Europe, starting long before we were a nation.

There are literally thousands of varieties, many of which grow wild in our woodlands, that are found nowhere else in the world. They are varieties that have no commercial value in today’s world, but are of extreme importance to the wildlife that depend to varying degrees on them. That’s why we were thrilled on our recent trip North of the Notches to see hundreds and hundreds of these trees in full bloom. It makes it so easy to see them for a few days a year when they are otherwise camouflaged into a green world of leaves and limbs.

I call them wild trees because they are no longer in the care of humans and survive as best they can. Tens of thousands have died over the last century. I can find almost a hundred just here in town, but thousands still remain.

Most of them are more, much more than 100 years old. Some twice that. The tree that I shot that buck from in Vermont in 1967, is a good example. It was, according to the farmer there, a hundred years old then, and last I knew it was still alive, 50 years later, having survived being mangled by bears and a lightning strike.

So it should come as no surprise that I cherish them and help them, when possible by cutting out competing saplings and in some cases pruning and feeding them. This picture of the apple tree at J.E. shows how that effort pays off.

J.E. Apple Tree Blossoms

J.E. Apple Tree Blossoms

A tree full of blossoms does not ensure fruit later, but a lack of blossoms equals no chance of fruit.

Long live the apple tree!

WLAGS